It’s a Tuesday night, not long after a multi-hour Asheville City Council session, and the three Democrats and a Republican all happen to be Asheville City Council members sitting together drinking beer at Pack’s Tavern, just a few paces from City Hall. Why should this matter?
It matters because, when Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and Council members Gordon Smith, Esther Manheimer and Bill Russell gathered on June 8, they constituted a majority of Council — and if they agree on a government matter, those four have the votes to make it happen. Any gathering of a quorum of Council qualifies as a meeting under North Carolina open meetings law, a law whose intent is to curb governmental bodies from discussing or deciding matters away from the public eye.
I only chanced to find the foursome, when, having just finished my own day’s work covering the nearly five-hour Council meeting, I decided to unwind a bit at the tavern. I anticipated nothing more than social conversation and a beer, so I was somewhat surprised to see the four gathering around a table. I felt obligated, as a reporter, to go over and point out to them that they constituted a majority of Council sitting around that table. Manheimer, an attorney, asserted that since the gathering was purely social and no government matters would be discussed, it was legal.
“They may be absolutely accurate that they’re not discussing any public business — it’s a little hard to believe, but maybe. If so, then that’s legal,” North Carolina Press Association attorney Amanda Martin later explained to Xpress.
Indeed, the law allows elected officials to get together for a “social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering” as long as there’s no talk about matters of interest to or consideration by the governmental body on which they serve.
Russell, in online comments on Xpress’ initial reporting, reasserted that no Council business was discussed and “I think it’s not ‘bad form’ to have personal relationships with your co-workers. Might do a lot of good for other politicians of the world.”
To be fair, Russell regularly votes against measures supported by his three compatriots, which does seem to make any sort of after-hours collusion politically unlikely.
But with all due respect to him and his colleagues, they aren’t just “co-workers,” but elected officials who have a lot more say than the average citizen in what happens (or doesn’t) in this town. And they are elected to exercise that power in the open, with adequate public notice.
The Press Association’s attorney made an additional point: It is hard to believe that if officials meet regularly such as the gathering at Pack’s Tavern, at some point government matters will come up and be discussed — which is, and should be, a crime.
There’s a reason why the City Clerk regularly sends out notices when Council gets invited to a ceremony or party of any sort; it’s to increase transparency about where elected officials are and what they’re doing. When the majority of Council gathers for unannounced private chats, over time it damages public confidence and wise governance, no matter how strident the denials that they’re talking about anything related to government. Council members can have whatever personal relationships they want, but when a majority of a governing body gathers around the same table, that’s a different ballgame.
Of course, this calls for greater restraint than expected from most people — but with power goes responsibility. Certain obligations come with elected office, and if that puts a bit of a damper on officials’ social life, so be it.
As for journalists raising such concerns, a lot of damage to both our profession and to good government has occurred because many in the media have become too cozy with those they cover. It’s our job, first and foremost, to act as a watchdog on those in power, even when it’s inconvenient, and especially when they say nothing’s going on.